Sunday, May 13, 2012

God's Rube Goldberg Machine

You don't have to dig very deep into Christianity to bump into this age-old controversy regarding God's sovereignty and man's responsibility. One school of thought will object (to varying degrees) to the idea that man has any free choice at all because, so they say, to imagine that man can make genuine free choices is to throw God's sovereignty under the bus. In order to affirm God's sovereignty, we must deny that humans have free will.

I have a way to "test" this notion. I don't aim to prove here that man has free will, though I have very good reasons to think that he does. But I do intend to demonstrate an irony: That denying human free will for the sake of preserving God's sovereignty can be seen to diminish God's sovereignty.

Before we do that, I think it's necessary to consider carefully what it means to say that man was created "in the image of God." In my research I have encountered various ways of expressing this idea, but the Christian Q & A web site ( begins to sum it all up with this:

"Having the “image” or “likeness” of God means, in the simplest terms, that we were made to resemble God."

But, the article goes on to explain that this "resemblance" isn't intended to be visual, but rather relates in some way to God's attributes. And an article at Answers In Genesis echoes this general sentiment:

"God endues man with some of his divine attributes, thereby separating and making him different from the beasts."

I don't anticipate the need to defend God's attributes here… most Christians seem pretty committed to the idea that God has attributes such as perfect righteousness, sovereignty, justice, omniscience, omnipresence, omnipotence, immutability and so on. And few Christians would object to the notion that these attributes are unlimited in their capacity and scope. There's an absolute or infinite quality about God's attributes. And I think it's pretty clear to most folks, particularly Christians, that man's attributes, though they might correspond to God's attributes, are far from unlimited.

The conclusion I've reached is this: To be "made in the image of God" means that God chose to give man versions of God's own attributes that are finite or limited in some crucial way.

The article at also had this to say, which lends itself nicely to the analogy we're going to explore related to God's sovereignty and man's choice.

"Anytime someone invents a machine, writes a book, paints a landscape, enjoys a symphony, calculates a sum, or names a pet, he or she is proclaiming the fact that we are made in God’s image."

I'm particularly interested in the "invents a machine" portion of that sentence… you'll see why shortly.

Next, we have to examine and come to an understanding of the word "sovereignty". I've seen the idea of sovereignty expressed in different ways, but I'm going to argue that they all have a common thread having to do with the ability to make decisions which are not determined or influenced by any outside entity. Certainly, sovereignty relates to authority. A person who is in authority has the right to make decisions which affect those whom he has been given authority over. You can see the word "reign" in "sovereignty," and we can easily relate this to the reign of a king, or even the reigns of a horse. As long as the rider of the horse is holding the reigns, it is he who decides where the horse is going to go. He is, in this context, "sovereign" over the horse.

Here are a couple of characterizations of "sovereignty" that I discovered, each of which relate to making decisions independent of any outside influence:

"Supreme and independent power or authority in government as possessed or claimed by a state or community."

"Supreme authority within a territory"

Well, alright… both of these definitions rely on the word "authority." So let's take a second to examine how that word is defined:

"The power to determine, adjudicate, or otherwise settle issues or disputes; jurisdiction; the right to control, command, or determine."

Can you see how words like "determine," "adjudicate," and phrases like "settle issues or disputes" relate to decision making?

But at this point we face a problem, because although we might understand that God's attributes are infinite and ours are finite, we seem to be unable to grasp things like infinity and eternity. As humans, we are locked inside the finite and while we can assent to the idea of the infinite, our minds cannot get control of such an idea. So how can we understand what unlimited or infinite sovereignty looks like? Well, I would suggest that we can't. But we can understand man's sovereignty… we're all too familiar with its limitations. So it seems to me that we could use that knowledge to help us understand God's sovereignty, because if we know what man's sovereignty is, then we know what God's sovereignty is not. God's sovereignty has to be qualitatively superior to ours. If it turned out that our view of God's sovereignty ended up being qualitatively equivalent to man's, then we'd have reason to think we had it wrong. Does that seem fair?

So, I have an illustration regarding God's sovereignty and man's freedom which, I think, helps us to examine and assess our own view of God's sovereignty.

In the mid-1900's there was a cartoonist named Rube Goldberg. He became famous for cartoons that depicted wildly complicated contraptions that performed very simple tasks. Today, engineering students frequently enter Rube Goldberg machine contests or have assignments to build Rube Goldberg machines as an excellent exercise in creativity and a general engineering challenge.

If you want to waste some time over at YouTube, just type "Rube Goldberg machine" into the search field. You will be treated to hundreds of videos of amazing and clever contraptions, painstakingly designed… some occupying multiple rooms in a house. It boggles the mind to think about how much time and effort went into these things. And being Rube Goldberg machines, the end game for each machine is comically easy and should not have required so much effort. One machine I viewed poured a bowl of cereal. Another crushed a grape. There are easier ways to pour a bowl of cereal or crush a grape. But Rube Goldberg machines are really created for everything but efficiency… their creators know there are easier ways; but Rube Goldberg machines are all about being creative and taking the road less traveled.

The creator of a Rube Goldberg machine, having been made in the image of God, is expressing God's attributes, albeit in a finite way, and one of them is sovereignty. That is, he or she makes decisions--and has the proper authority to make these decisions--about what the final objective will be, how the cascade of events will be initiated, how each segment of the machine will accomplish work towards the final objective, how the laws of physics and chemistry will be exploited to accomplish that final objective, etc. The creator of a Rube Goldberg machine is making decision after decision as the machine takes shape. He or she rules over the machine they are creating.

And yet, their sovereignty is limited. Because for one thing, the creator of a Rube Goldberg machine didn't create the laws of physics and chemistry, nor did they create atoms and molecules that make up all of the component parts of the machine. But when it comes to carefully selecting the various component parts for a given machine, isn't it interesting that nobody ever uses any kind of living creature in their machine? I mean, why not use a cat, for example? I have an idea as to why this isn't done: You see, a cat has a mind of its own--a will, and it's highly unlikely that the cat will cooperate with the creator's plan for the machine. On the other hand, inanimate objects like ramps, levers, balls and dominoes are entirely predictable and can be relied upon (once placed in the proper arrangement) to contribute to the function of the machine.

Suppose that I build a Rube Goldberg machine, with all the usual ramps, levers, dominoes, pulleys, counterweights and so on, but in this machine, I choose to employ a cat. You know, maybe there's a surface for the cat to stand on, and maybe a box with a plate of tuna inside. The plate rests on a spring-loaded gizmo and at a crucial point in the chain of events, a door would slide open giving the cat access to the tuna, he would eat the tuna, the reduced weight would unload the spring, the support would rise up and trip a lever that knocks down a row of dominoes and on it goes…

But wait… that's only what I intend to happen. Suppose at that crucial moment as the machine does its thing, the cat decides it needs to visit the litter box. Or cough up a hairball? See, even though I'm the creator of this machine and even though I have a kind of "sovereignty" over the machine, I cannot accommodate the free and unpredictable actions of a cat in the function of the machine. Because of this, as you survey various Rube Goldberg machines posted at YouTube, you aren't likely to find any that use elements such as a cat, elements with anything like free will. Our sovereignty is limited in that way.

Now, Rube Goldberg machines can take various forms… actually the only thing that distinguishes a Rube Goldberg machine from any other is that efficiency and simplicity are not among the objectives for a Rube Goldberg machine. But any machine operates the same way… there is an end-goal, an objective, and there are component parts which contribute to that final objective. In his 1996 book "Darwin's Black Box," Michael Behe devoted a whole chapter to the discussion of a biochemical machine found in mammals known as the blood clotting cascade… except this isn't a "machine" in the usual sense, but rather a complex chain of chemical reactions at the molecular level. The chapter was titled "Rube Goldberg in the Blood."

Well, suppose we look at God's plan for history as a kind of giant Rube Goldberg machine. It has an objective and it has component parts, but in this case, a large number of the component parts in this machine are PEOPLE. God uses these component parts to accomplish His final objective. And with God as the creator of this machine, we know He created everything in the machine… all of the component parts. And as creator of this giant Rube Goldberg machine, we know He has sovereignty over it. But this is where we can, perhaps, learn something about God's sovereignty compared with man's sovereignty. Again, we know our own sovereignty inside and out. We live within its limitations daily. And we know that if our view of God's sovereignty is correct, He will not be subject to those same kinds of limitations. So, since there are a large number of Christians who firmly believe that God's sovereignty and human free will are mutually exclusive, consider this question carefully:

If we think it's impossible for God to be sovereign over a machine made of component parts which have free will, then isn't the sovereignty we're ascribing to God qualitatively equivalent to our own sovereignty?

My view of God's sovereignty is that it is qualitatively superior to man's, and to use our metaphor here, that means that He could choose to make a giant Rube Goldberg machine, give all of the component parts genuine free will, and still expect His objective to be met. But to say that man can't have free will because it would compromise God's sovereignty is to think of God's sovereignty as being no better than man's.

Again, this illustration is not intended to prove that man has free will. It is only intended to demonstrate that affirming genuine free will in man does not translate to a low view of God's sovereignty and actually can be seen as being consistent with a very high view of God's sovereignty. In other words, there doesn't need to be any tension between God's sovereignty and man's choice if we have a high view of God's sovereignty and especially if we also take into account God's other attributes such as omniscience and omnipotence.

Friday, December 02, 2011

Truth, Consequences and Doublespeak

So, there's a connection between the Calvinist iteration of Total Depravity and this compatibilist free will idea. The Calvinist understands Total Depravity more as Total Inability; that a person is completely unable to choose to pursue God and, coupled with that, God must intervene to change the nature of those He elects for salvation so that they will inevitably believe and if He does not change a person's nature, they will never believe because they are unable to, doing so would be contrary to their nature. By now you should start to see the relationship to compatibilist free will: You are only able to make choices that are consistent with your nature… any choice that's inconsistent with your nature is a choice you are not able to make. Calvinists believe that man's nature is inclined against God. And the compatibilist version of free will states that no one can make choices that are contrary to their nature. This would explain why it is that God has to somehow supernaturally change a person's nature to enable them to believe, because without that they never will.

However, that all assumes that compatibilist free will is true. And I think we've shown that compatibilist free will is not true. But what would Total Depravity look like if libertarian free will were true, and man IS actually capable of choosing that which is contrary to his nature? Hmmm… that's a real game-changer, isn't it?

Now Calvinists will frequently take the opportunity of an attack on Total Depravity to play the semi-pelagianism card. Semi-pelagianism denied that man's nature wasn't damaged enough by the fall to render him completely unable to pursue God. Well, it's interesting to notice that if compatibilist free will turns out to be false and libertarian free will turns out to be true, then we can agree that man has a totally corrupt and rebellious nature, but he is nonetheless capable of choosing that which is contrary to his nature: Belief in God.

This thinking can be seen to have implications, then, for what the Calvinist expects from his post-salvation life as well. The Calvinist understanding is that the regenerated man has a "new nature" (and I would agree) but given compatibilist free will, it should be impossible for the Calvinist to choose that which is contrary to his new nature. That is, regenerate man should no longer be drawn toward sin… he is a changed man. However, this is fraught with difficulty because every Calvinist knows that sin persists to some degree in the life of the believer in spite of his new nature. From this flows a prodigious amount of double-speak, since the Calvinist is now torn between this idea that they have a new nature, and yet they plainly see that sin remains. That this is true actually demonstrates that the compatibilist concept of free will is false.

But again, libertarian free will can be seen as a solution here. Only if one is committed to the compatibilist notion of free will can these two realities be seen to conflict. Because given libertarian free will, it is not at all unthinkable that the regenerated person is capable of choosing that which is against this new nature. And isn't that what Paul struggles with in Romans 7?

This is interesting enough, seems to me… but when you combine this with some considerations related to general revelation, it becomes easier to see what God is up to and how this all works together.

Two passages in particular can be seen to reveal God's strategy, or at least part of it. Psalm 19 and Romans 1:20. These passages make it clear that the creation around us isn't merely there to accommodate and provide sustenance for man. Rather, these passages state that there is another purpose designed into creation, and that is to testify to the presence and existence of God. Notice that this is not the Bible's role… the Bible has another role. But the role of creation, clearly, is to alert man to God's presence. And this can be seen then as an appeal to man's libertarian free will, to give us reason to choose--quite against our nature--to pursue God in precisely the same way that my wife can coax me into eating a few slices of zucchini on the grounds that my diet needs to improve.

The conclusion this brings me to is that the Calvinist's understanding of Total Depravity, and in fact much of their theology, appears to be driven more by a compatibilist view of free will than it is driven by what the Bible actually says.

Thursday, December 01, 2011

A Battle of Wills

I am in the midst of studying the tenets of Calvinism or "Reform Theology", and to be honest, it is a theological system that I tend to reject quite strongly. Nevertheless, I'm making an effort to honestly consider the claims of Calvinism and that means listening to what Calvinists themselves say about what they believe. The big issue that must be dealt with in any discussion related to Calvinism is the apparent dilemma of God's sovereignty and man's responsibility. This is a centuries-old debate that requires the consideration of the idea of "free will," or our ability to make choices that are actually choices as opposed to making choices which we merely believe are choices, but are actually pre-determined in some sense by some entity over which we have no control.

For various reasons, the Calvinist is compelled to divide the concept of "free will" into two possible categories: "Libertarian free will" and "Compatibilist free will."

I was listening to a very good podcast the other day, the host is a man named Jay Warner Wallace, a Christian apologist and, interestingly, a cold-case homocide detective. Wallace claims himself to be a Calvinist, and I listened to two shows in particular in which he dealt with these two categories of free will. What follows is a very close paraphrase of his explanations:

Libertarian free will: A human has the ability to choose anything within the realm of possibility, even when the choice that's made is contrary to the person's nature, contrary to the person's inclinations and desires, likes and dislikes.

Compatibilist free will: A human does have the freedom to make a choice, but he is always restrained by his pre-existing nature, by his inclinations and desires, likes and dislikes.

Wallace offers this example as a way of clarifying the Compatibilist view:

"In other words, you walk into that pizzeria, you're not going to choose an anchovy pizza, you still have freedom, but you hate anchovies, you don't like them, you dislike them. So therefore you are limited in your choices because you're not going to choose those. You only choose within your nature."

Wallace affirms compatibilist free will and says that the notion of libertarian free will is false.

So, how can we test this idea? Well, it seems to me that if I wanted to show that compatibilist free will is false, I would simply need to demonstrate that I can, in fact, choose to do something that is contrary to my nature, my inclinations, desires, likes and dislikes.

Well, it turns out that I don't have to spend much time conjuring up examples which show that compatibilist free will is false and that libertarian free will is true. For instance:

It is against my nature, my inclinations, my desires, my likes and dislikes, to mow the lawn. And yet, every week or two during the summer I make a choice to mow my lawn. I don't like it, I'd prefer to do something else, I do not consider it pleasant. I have no desire to mow my lawn. And yet, I choose to mow my lawn. That is a choice I make that is contrary to my nature, my inclinations, desires, likes and dislikes.

Similarly, I abhor green beans. They are disgusting, I can hardly believe that anyone would touch them, let alone put one in their mouth. Needless to say, it is inconsistent with my nature, my inclinations, desires, likes and dislikes to eat green beans. And yet, occasionally (very occasionally, I'll admit) I choose to eat them. This choice is contrary to my nature, my inclinations, desires, likes and dislikes.

Let's go the other direction once… I like chocolate chip cookies. It is quite consistent with my nature to eat chocolate chip cookies. And yet, when there are chocolate chip cookies in the house, after I've eaten one or two, and even though I desire, even though I'm strongly inclined to eat a third, or a fourth, or a fifth, I am able to choose to stop eating the chocolate chip cookies.

Every weekday morning I take water exercise classes at a local fitness center. Exercise is against my nature, I am not naturally inclined to exercise, nor am I naturally inclined to transport myself down to the pool at 5:30 every morning. And yet, in spite of the fact that I don't like these things, I choose every morning to do that which is contrary to my nature, my inclinations, desires, likes and dislikes.

As I considered this further, I was struck by how completely obvious this seems to be; that libertarian free will is obviously true and compatibilist free will is obviously false. So then I have to wonder: Why is Jay Warner Wallace persuaded of the opposite? He's a smart guy! And I don't want to jump to conclusions here… if I've missed some important point, I'd like to know about it. So I dug a little deeper. Look at my last example; the water exercise routine. It's true, it's not fun getting up at 5:20 every morning and hauling myself down to the fitness center for the class. I really would rather stay at home; that's my nature. And yet, again, I do choose to go to the class. I was thinking about what Wallace might say if I offered that example, and it occurred to me that he might say that there's another aspect of my nature, my inclinations, etc. that IS being preserved in my choice to violate my inclination to stay home. That other aspect might be that it's against my nature, my inclinations, what I like and dislike, to have back pain and not be able to move around easily. Such is the consequence of not going to the pool regularly. So, my decision to violate one aspect of my nature actually honors another aspect of my nature.

Well, that makes a certain amount of sense… except that this isn't what Wallace claimed, is it? He claimed that humans are only able to choose consistent with their pre-existing nature, and he didn't say anything about competing natures or inclinations. So either his claim is true or it's false. Even if I'm choosing consistent with ONE aspect of my nature, if it is possible for me to choose something that is against another aspect of my nature, then it seems to me that compatibilist free will is still demonstrated to be false.

What it comes down to, I think, is that the compatibilist free will idea is much too simplistic. That is, it seems to overlook the fact that we have multiple competing inclinations, desires, likes and dislikes in operation at any give moment in any given context. I might not be inclined to mow the lawn, however I am inclined to keep my house looking half-way decent. I might be inclined to eat the whole batch of chocolate chip cookies, but I'm also inclined toward improving my health so I can be more comfortable and productive. This compatibilist notion seems to ignore that complexity altogether. No allowance is made for ever choosing contrary to your inclinations… under compatibilist free will, such a choice would be impossible.

On the other hand, the idea of libertarian free will doesn't have any such liabilities. The claim of libertarian free will is that each person is able to make choices that are inconsistent with their inclinations… but notice that allowance is made for making choices consistent with your inclinations as well as making choices that are contrary to your inclinations. This allows multiple inclinations to operate simultaneously, where the person is able to prioritize and uphold those inclinations which the person determines to be most important. And notice that this decision as to priority is itself a choice.

There's one other point that could be made about this notion of compatibilist free will: There is a sense in which the argument is circular. It could be stated this way: You don't have free will because your free will won't allow you to have free will. See, the idea of free will has to do with not being compelled by any force outside of yourself to make certain decisions. It may well be that I didn't consciously decide to detest broccoli the way I do. Certainly, my aversion to vegetables and fruits does seem to be a feature of my personality that I didn't actually choose to acquire, so far as I know. But nobody else compels me to dislike broccoli, either. And again, even though my nature is diametrically opposed to the consumption of broccoli, I have chosen in the past to actually eat it. The point is this: It is me and only me that decides not to eat broccoli, even though under certain extraordinary circumstances I might ultimately choose to eat it.

After very careful consideration, then, I have to conclude that the compatibilist notion of free will is absolutely false and that libertarian free will is obviously true.

The reason this is so important is that it relates to the idea of "Total Depravity" as defined in Reform Theology. And that is what I'll analyze next.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Question #8: How Does One Become Saved?

The eighth and final question is this:

How does one become saved?

This is really a tough question… for one thing, when discussing this with the cults, the concept of "saved" has to be redefined. The Watchtower and the LDS Church have different concepts of what will happen to someone who's "saved." So, again, in order to compare apples with apples, I rephrased the questions slightly for the JWs and the Mormons.

One would expect that the cults' answer to this question would be very different from Christianity's answer to the same question. Christianity, after all, is said to be based on salvation by Grace and not works. And the cults are widely known to teach salvation by works and I believe that the previous 7 questions have demonstrated that this is indeed the case.

But what happens when you compare the cults' answers to this question with the answer offered by very popular Lordship Salvation teachers? Is there a big difference? Shouldn't there be?

Latter Day Saints (Mormon):
The following quote was taken directly from the LDS web site. It is their expression of how one attains the celestial kingdom, their view of ultimate salvation:

To become worthy to live in Heavenly Father’s presence after this life and to receive this peace and strength, you must learn and follow the principles and ordinances of the gospel. The first principles of the gospel are faith in Jesus Christ and repentance. The first ordinances of the gospel are baptism and receiving the gift of the Holy Ghost. After you learn and follow the first principles and ordinances of the gospel, you must seek to follow Christ’s example throughout the remainder of your life. This continued faithfulness is called “enduring to the end.”

Notice the implications here… you have to "become worthy" to live in God's presence. Hmm. And you do this by learning and following these principles. Notice that it's not enough to have faith in Jesus Christ (again, they reject Christ's deity) but you must "seek to follow Christ's example" for the rest of your life!! This takes us back, again, to the assurance issue. You can clearly see that assurance would be impossible with this view because no one ever can know whether they will follow Christ's example for literally the rest of their life. In fact, you can be sure there will be failure. I suppose that's why they provide themselves a back door when they say "seek to follow". I guess you don't really have to follow, you just have to seek to follow. The seeking is good enough. Ah, the doublespeak.

The Watchtower: (Jehovah's Witnesses)
My interview with a local Jehovah's Witness revealed that you can live forever (their view of salvation) if you meet the requirements for salvation. If we have rejected religious falsehood, repented of our sins, submitted to water baptism, are doing our best to serve God the way he outlines in the Bible we have every reason to trust that we are in good standing with God. If we continue serving him whole souled and meet his righteous requirements.

That's really not all that different from the LDS answer, is it? If we do these things, then we can live forever, go to Heaven, or whatever. If we continue serving him "whole-souled'. The first key word there is "IF." And that's a big word. As my best friend used to say, "if frogs had wings, they wouldn't bump their butts on lily pads." See, they don't know "if" they will continue to serve. How could they? Thus, they have no assurance. And what on Earth does "whole-souled" mean? What about "half-souled"? Or "three quarter-souled"? Those aren't good enough? How do you measure? And notice, once again, the escape clause: "If we… are doing our best to serve…" See, this is very much like the Mormon language of "seeking." Anyway, you get the idea. I'm sure we'll get a breath of fresh air when we ask the popular Lordship teachers, though, right?

Lordship Salvation:
Well, you would think so, wouldn't you? But no, sorry… Lordship teachers, it turns out, have a very similar idea about how one becomes saved. They express this in many different ways, but it boils down to commiting your life to Christ, by continual faith and complete surrender and absolute obedience. Here are some quotes:
Jesus is Lord of all and the faith He demands involves unconditional surrender. He does not bestow eternal life on those whose hearts remain set against Him. -John MacArthur

[Salvation] comes from a life lived in obedience and service to Christ as revealed in the scripture. It (salvation) is the fruit of actions, not intentions. -John MacArthur

The life we live, not the words we speak, determines our eternal destiny. -John MacArthur

How are these answers any different, essentially, than LDS and Watchtower? They're not, are they? I wonder if the "Free Grace" view has anything different to offer:

Free Grace:
The Free Grace answer is incredibly simple. Put your faith alone in Christ alone and you have eternal life. End of story. You can go to Heaven merely by deciding to trust in Christ, realizing that He paid the price, He has made all the provision, you can add nothing to it, and so complete, so profound is God's grace in this matter that there isn't anything you can do to lose that salvation. You can know right now that you have eternal life (and eternal life lasts forever) by simply putting your trust in Christ today. And even if you fail next week, even if you become persuaded at some point in the future that you must add your works (which equates with not trusting Christ) then you still have eternal life. (eternal life, by definition, lasts forever, remember?)

Now this is not to be understood as a recommendation against performing good works once you're saved… we certainly should do good works. But even without those works, Romans 4:5 says, we are justified because we have put our trust in Christ, the one who justifies the unGodly. Therefore works aren't the issue at all in salvation in the Free Grace view. They aren't a requirement, they aren't a "necessary result" (which is the same thing as a requirement) they aren't relevant at all when it comes to whether or not you're bound for Heaven. All that's relevant for salvation is whether you have placed your trust in Christ.

This answer is 180 degrees opposed to all three other views. It is totally unique and distinct, and I think that demonstrates, especially when combined with the answers to the other 7 questions and how they compare, that Free Grace is the only view which properly separates works from grace. That is, the Lordship view is essentially based on works every bit as much as the cults' doctrines. If that's not the case, then how else do you explain the similarities in the answers to these questions?

We are so clever in the way that we constantly seek to make our behavior, our works, our morality, our obedience the issue. Somehow we'll find a way to do it, even as we deny that salvation is by works. Even as we insist that salvation is a free gift. We must check ourselves, we must examine critically what we're taught and think carefully about what a "free gift" really is, about what that really means. And we must realize that when we smuggle our works back into the equation, we are no longer trusting in Christ. That might not mean, thanks to eternal security, that we lose our salvation… salvation is not something that can be lost once it's been received. But the condition for salvation is, quite clearly, trust in Christ. Nothing is more important than this, the core gospel message.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Question #7: Reward or Gift?

The 7th question goes like this:
Is salvation a reward or a gift?

This is an important question as the answer ought to really govern other conclusions we reach about salvation. It has huge implications as to assurance of salvation, for example, it seems self evident to me that if we view salvation as a gift, then absolute assurance is ours to keep as well. But if we view salvation as a reward, you can see that assurance becomes much more elusive since rewards are based on performance and, well, maybe you're not cutting the mustard. The question is, how to the cults answer this question and how does that line up with what Lordship teachers teach?

Latter-Day Saints (Mormon):
I put this question to the three LDS missionaries who answered my invitation, and after some discussion the answer finally came back: "Both". They understand it to be both a gift and a reward. Now for them this is more complicated because really "salvation" for them is not what it is to us… "salvation" is just the "First Heaven" and, well, everyone ends up there. So perhaps you could call that a gift. But their ultimate version of "salvation" is entry into the Third Heaven, or the "Celestial Kingdom". And this is certainly a reward and they readily admit that you have to work, you have to perform, to get there.

The Watchtower (Jehovah's Witnesses):
Unfortunately, the Watchtower is apparently rather confused about whether salvation is a gift or a reward, as a quick tour through the Watchtower's web site will reveal to contradictory ideas in this regard:
“[Jehovah’s Witnesses] are working hard now for the reward of eternal life… making themselves eligible to receive the reward of eternal life.” -Watchtower publication

“Salvation is a free gift from God. It cannot be earned. Yet it does require effort on our part.” -Watchtower publication

Lordship Salvation:
Lordship teachers are not consistent even with themselves when it comes to this question. They seem to view salvation as a gift on one day, and a reward on the next, very similar to the Watchtower.
“Eternal life is indeed a free gift.” -John MacArthur

“This is a perfect picture of saving faith… the true believer signs up and gives everything for Christ. [Moses] gave up spectacular worldly wealth in order to suffer for Christ’s sake…he was really trading Egypt for a heavenly reward.” -John MacArthur

In the last quote, MacArthur is illustrating his view of salvation using Moses and his faithful choice to confront and oppose Pharoah even though Moses knew it would mean he was giving up wealth and power. By the context of the quotation, we know that MacArthur was speaking of entry into Heaven… eternal salvation, and in this illustration, MacArthur clearly views salvation as a reward (for having sacrificed all that wealth and power).

Again, it's important to understand that these ideas have consequences… That you may think salvation is a reward or a gift is not just a trivial matter. A reward is, by definition, earned and a gift, by definition, is not. Any view of salvation as a reward could betray a reliance on works for that salvation.

Free Grace:
For the 7th time, Free Grace provides an answer that is not only unique, but consistent as well. It seems that teachers of Free Grace theology take seriously the Bible's insistence that salvation is a free gift. A gift is something for which you did not work… either before or after the fact. The fact that salvation is a free gift enables us to say, with certainty, that we are saved no matter what. It links up with our 100% assurance quite nicely and doesn't create any conflicts or contradictions. Rewards are given in Heaven for our performance in this life, according to the level of sanctification we attain individually, but going to Heaven is not a reward. You won't ever find Free Grace teachers describing salvation from Hell as a "reward".

Thursday, January 07, 2010

Question #6: What is Faith?

Question #6 is:
What is faith?

Or, more specifically, what concepts does faith necessarily include or imply? Does faith simply mean to place your trust in someone or something with no other component added, or does it necessarily include and imply obedience? It's an interesting question and the results of asking it are just as interesting.

Latter-Day Saints: (Mormon)
In LDS doctrine, faith equals knowledge plus obedience. The two go together. If you don't obey, you don't have faith. But also notice that, again, there appears to be some allowance for sin, which can only mean a failure to obey. Consider this quote from the LDS web site:
Although you may still sin, you show your love for Him by striving to keep His commandments and avoiding sin.

Notice that the goalposts have moved… Faith is knowledge plus obedience. But in this quote we see that merely striving to obey is apparently good enough. But how can this be if faith equals knowledge plus obedience? Perhaps they really mean that faith equals knowledge plus striving for obedience. Consider one other quote from the LDS web site:
However, Jesus did not eliminate your personal responsibility. You must show that you accept Christ and that you have faith in Him by keeping His commandments and obeying the first principles and ordinances of the gospel.

According to this quote, I must demonstrate my faith in Christ by keeping His commandments. But if I occasionally sin, and they say that I might, then I am not keeping His commandments.

That's an interesting quandary, I think.

The Watchtower: (Jehovah's Witnesses)
The Watchtower teaches that faith must include obedience. Consider this quote from my interview from a local witness:
Obedience is necessary because it demonstrates that our faith is genuine. -Local Jehovah's Witness

Well, this is very similar to the LDS description… you must show that you have faith by obeying and keeping His commandments. But in my interview with a local Jehovah's Witness, I was told that it's possible to get off-track spiritually. Well, how is it possible to get off-track spiritually if you always obey? In other words, the Watchtower acknowledges that everyone slips a bit here and there, fails to obey. And once again we're back into the same quandary as with LDS. Their definition of faith shouldn't allow for any disobedience at all. They say faith necessarily includes obedience, that our obedience is necessary in order to demonstrate that our faith is real, or to validate our faith. This means that if you disobey at all, you're revealing that your faith is not genuine.

Lordship Salvation:
It's interesting that we find exactly the same idea in Lordship teaching. Lordship teachers believe that obedience is a necessary component of faith.
Faith is synonymous with obedience. -Marc Mueller

Faith includes obedience -John Stott

Scripture often equates faith with obedience. -John MacArthur

And here's one more interesting quote from MacArthur:
Genuine believers may stumble and fall, but they will persevere in the faith. -John MacArthur

Under this understanding, we have all the same problems that we have in the cults' teaching! How strange is that?

Free Grace:
Under Free Grace, faith is nothing more than the act of trusting someone or something. Faith has no power in itself, it is entirely dependent on the object and whether or not the object of your faith is actually capable of delivering that which you expect or trust. Obedience is not a necessary component of faith.

I cannot think of any good reason to conflate obedience with faith… in fact, doing so creates serious logical difficulties. Faith, or "trust" simply means reliance on some object. Any object. Could be a person, could be a thing. If I'm a skydiver, I trust my parachute. If trust implies obedience, then in what way do I "obey" my parachute? Has the parachute given me commands? Okay, you might say, but that's pertaining to an inanimate object… what about a person?

Well, that's easy, seems to me. Just think of a young child who relies on his parents for food and shelter. Does that mean the child always obeys his parents? After having disobeyed, does the child immediately start trying to provide his own meals and his own shelter? No… he still appears at the dinner table, relying on his parents (whom he has disobeyed) for his nourishment. Obedience, therefore, is totally independent of trust or faith.

In addition to that, as we've seen, there is a serious logical problem with including obedience as a necessary component of faith: Any lack of obedience, however small, must be interpreted as a lack of faith. Therefore, if you disobey at all, you do not have faith in Christ and therefore you're not saved. If obedience is part and parcel of faith, then nobody will go to Heaven because all of us disobey and this reveal our lack of faith.

For the sixth time, we've seen that Free Grace offers an answer that is not only totally unique from the the other three answers (all of which are essentially the same) but it also is logically consistent and fits what we know about reality… that is, that everybody fails to obey… quite regularly, in fact. And if faith includes obedience then nobody can be saved.

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Question #5: Continual, Perpetual Faith?

Question #5:

Does faith in Christ have to be continual, or is belief at a point in time sufficient?

Again, I should emphasize that although Christ's deity is an extremely important issue, it's not an issue that's "on the table" for this exercise. I understand that Christ is a different person to Jehovah's Witnesses and to Mormons when compared with orthodox Christianity, and that this incorrect identity is a major issue. But the focus here, regardless of who or what Christ is, is does faith in Christ have to be an ongoing, perpetual, never-ending faith in order for salvation to take place. Now we'll take a look at how the different groups answered the question.

Latter Day Saints (Mormon):
LDS doctrine teaches that belief must be ongoing, but interestingly, the LDS missionaries I spoke with agreed that everyone slips up from time to time so there is some allowance for that. Allowance for how much is not defined.

The Watchtower (Jehovah's Witnesses):
Clearly the Watchtower teaches that faith must be ongoing and continual, along with the obedience that comes with it. But it is possible to get off-track spiritually but later get restored to good-standing with the Creator. Here we have a similar idea to that expressed my the Mormons: Everyone slips up sometimes, there seems to be some allowance for that. But again, that allowance is not defined or quantified in any way. For how long can your belief be suspended? How serious can your failure be before there is finally no turning back?

Lordship Salvation:
Once again, we see a curious similarity between the Lordship view and both LDS and Watchtower doctrine on this question. The answer from the Lordship camp seems to be that belief must be ongoing and perpetual… and if faith ceases at some point, then it was never really real to begin with and person is not saved.
Endurance in faith is a condition for future salvation; only those who endure in faith will be saved for eternity -R.C. Sproul

Genuine believers may stumble and fall, but they will persevere in the faith. -John MacArthur

Also notice in John MacArthur's quote that he expresses the idea that believers may "stumble and fall" but goes on to say that they will persevere in faith. Well that's odd because that's very similar, again, to what the LDS and Watchtower teaches. MacArthur is setting forth some sort of allowance for failure, but as in the case with the cults, that allowance is not defined. At what point does stumbling and falling reveal a less-than genuine faith?

Free Grace:
For a fifth time, we see that Free Grace has the unique perspective on this question: If faith in Christ had to be continual, then 100% assurance would be impossible and our salvation would depend on us and not on Christ. The answer is no, it does not have to be continual and the Greek grammar in every salvation passage supports this.

Many salvation passages, such as John 3:15, 3:16, 3:36, 5:24, 6:40, 6:47, 11:25-26, 20:31 are commonly misunderstood to mean that belief must be continuing. The misunderstanding arises from the phrase "The one who believes", which recurs in each of these verses. "Believes" there is typically taken as present-tense verb and from this people conclude that ongoing, continual faith is required.

Think of the implications for assurance that this carries: Since you cannot know whether your belief will continue until death, you cannot know whether you're saved until you actually die. Yet, in 1 John 5:13 John writes:
I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God that you may know that you have eternal life.

How could John have written this if belief had to be continual? How would John know that his entire audience would continue in their belief such that he could tell them that they have eternal life right now? The only way he could have told them this is if he knew that they need only believe once.

It's not that difficult to see that it is incorrect to understand the verbs in these passages to indicate continual belief. In every one of those verses, the word "believes" is not a verb at all; it's a participle. Participles don't carry a reference to tense the way verbs do.

It is rather easy to demonstrate that the use of a participle tells you nothing about when something happened or whether it continues to happen. Consider the following sentence:

The person who paints his house red will have a red house.

If "paints" is a present-tense verb which necessarily denotes continuing action, then this person must never stop painting if they are to have a red house. Notice that we would never reach such a conclusion from this sentence… we know that would be absurd. The word "paints" here is not a verb, but a participle. It's used to describe the person, like an adjective would and tells us nothing about when the action took place or how long it endured.

This can also be demonstrated with John 5:24 which reads:

whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life.

Both the word "hears" and the word "believes" are participles, not verbs. But suppose for a moment that we are to understand "believes" as a present-tense verb indicating continual action… if that's the case, then the same must be true of "hears". So, one must never stop hearing Christ's word either. I dunno about you, but when I'm asleep, I've stopped hearing. In fact, there are many times throughout the day that I am not hearing Christ's word. According to the way these folks understand this verse (due to their distortion of the grammar) I am not saved because I do not continually hear Christ's word.

If we understand these words as participles with no reference to tense, then this problem evaporates. You only need to hear Christ's word once by this understanding, and if that's true of the word "hears" then it's also true of the word "believes." They are the same part of speech. God is logically consistent.

For a fifth time, we see that the Free Grace perspective stands apart from the other three views, totally unique and totally consistent with the absolute assurance promised in the Bible and Christ's absolute faithfulness.